January 08, 2004
A thought by James Berardinelli

There's something daring - almost pompous - about calling a book The Great Movies, but that's precisely what Roger Ebert has done. Originally released in hardback during 2002, the volume (which is a compilation of retrospective reviews previously published in The Chicago Sun-Times) is now available as a trade paperback, which makes it a little less bulky (although, at over 500 pages, it still has heft). In fact, my only real quibble with the book is the title. The word "great" (something I carefully avoided for my own recent Top 100) has an objective connotation which implies that all 100 titles in this book have been agreed to as masterpieces by some sort of critical consensus. In reality, these are movies that Ebert believes to be great. Would everyone agree to the inclusion of Bride of Frankenstein, Todd Browning's Dracula, and E.T. under the umbrella of greatness? No, and there might be arguments about other titles, as well. Nevertheless, I will admit that naming a volume "Roger Ebert's The Great Movies" sounds better than "Roger Ebert's Favorite Movies."

Ebert's style, as always, is comfortable and friendly - more than conversational but less than formal. He brings a great deal of knowledge and background to this book, and, although you may not agree with his assessment of certain films, you're guaranteed to understand why he holds a particular opinion. The reviews frequently exceed 1200 to 1500 words, which is more than double the length of a day-of-opening Ebert review. And, surprisingly for something that is so fragmentary, The Great Movies is a page-turner. Once you have read one review, you compulsively want to move to the next one. And, in short order, all 100 are behind you and you're on the web looking for more. Clearly, a great deal of thought and craft has gone into every one of the essays. The titles include the expected (Citizen Kane, 2001, Casablanca), the offbeat (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Peeping Tom), and the less-serious (Star Wars, Pulp Fiction, Some Like It Hot). Because these are part of an on-going series, one can safely expect a Volume 2 of The Great Movies in about another two years, after the total number of titles exceeds 200.

Ebert makes it clear in the introduction that these are not "'the' 100 greatest films of all time." He goes on to write that "all lists of great movies are a foolish attempts to codify works which must stand alone." (This is precisely the reason why my own Top 100 represents my list of favorite films, not a catalogue of greatness.) For this reason, the titles do not have numbers, although we know from experience that Ebert's #1 movie is Citizen Kane. The length of his 3000-plus word essay, by far the longest in the tome, bears this out.

So why buy the book (which lists for about $16) when the text can be had for free at the Sun-Times website? The reasons (which I also offered in defense of my own book) are simple. Sometimes it's a lot more pleasurable to read from the written page than from a computer screen. Portability is a factor; it's a lot more pleasant to curl up with a good book than with a laptop, and who wants to risk getting salt and sand on the viewscreen or in between the keys at the beach? And, if the power goes out, what then? Plus, each review is accompanied by a nice black-and-white photograph (here we go with pictures & reviews again...), a feature that cannot be found on-line. If you didn't get a copy when it was available in hardcover, my advice is to spend the $11 (discounted) at